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Overview of Co-dependency

  1. What is codependency?
  2. What are the characteristics of codependency?
  3. Is there anything wrong with being codependent?
  4. How do I know if I'm codependent?
  5. Isn't everyone codependent to some degree?
  6. How do we become codependent?
  7. Can counseling help treat codependency?

What is codependency?

You have probably heard the term “codependency” used a lot, as it became a popular term in our vernacular sometime after the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve step recovery program was established in the late 1930s. The concept of codependency has been discussed and written about a lot in recent years, and you may run into various definitions of the term.

The original definition of codependency was the set of responses and behaviors people develop while living with a partner or family member who is an alcoholic. It is now generally accepted that codependency may develop in anyone living with someone who is an addict, regardless of which substance is being abused, or may even develop if you live in a household with someone who has a chronic mental or physical illness.

There are multiple “codependent” behaviors that can develop in a non-alcoholic, non-addict or non-ill partner or family member as a result of living in a home where alcoholism, drug abuse or other problematic issues are present. Over the years, the definition of codependency has expanded to encompass any dysfunctional pattern of living and problem solving that may have developed as a result of dysfunctional family dynamics.

One current definition of codependency describes a person who has too much emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, parent, or family member who has an illness or addiction. Generally speaking, codependency can be defined as a set of compulsive behaviors learned by family members in order to adapt in a setting where there is addiction, neglect, physical or emotional abuse, chronic illness or a dysfunction that creates an environment of significant emotional pain and stress.

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What are the characteristics of codependency?

To understand codependency further, it might help to examine some additional terms that are used to describe codependent behavior. For example, a psychologist might use the word “maladaptive” to describe someone who has developed patterns of thinking and doing that are causing or perpetuating emotional problems, or preventing them from adapting appropriately in different situations. For example, a maladaptive person might avoid certain situations because they bring on feelings of inadequacy or anxiety. People who are codependent can sometimes become maladaptive. Are there any types of social situations that you avoid because they cause you discomfort or anxiety? If so, you may be maladaptive.

Another trait or characteristic that codependent people may develop is compulsive behavior. A compulsive behavior is loosely defined as any persistent or unwanted action that one is unable to stop, such as compulsive or repetitive tidying or other cleaning. Some people become compulsive shoppers or compulsive gamblers. Usually the compulsive behavior stems from a compulsive thought pattern.

The compulsive behaviors we are referring to here are not necessarily the same thing as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), which is considered to be more severe type of compulsive behavior. People who suffer from OCD typically feel they must check things or do things repeatedly or ritually, to the point that it interferes with daily life.

Codependency symptoms can include:

  • Being a people pleaser and lacking assertiveness, which may involve being unable to say “no” to people or going out of your way to accommodate others
  • Being indirect or untruthful about your feelings, which may be because you’re afraid to upset someone else by expressing your true thoughts or feelings
  • Avoiding your feelings or denying your feelings, which may be illustrated by a problem with intimacy, a reluctance to get close to someone, or an inability to trust another
  • Having low self-esteem, which translates to feeling that you are not good enough or are somehow unlovable or inadequate and can lead to being controlling or a perfectionist
  • Over-controlling, which may manifest as having rigid and limiting patterns in your own behaviors, such as perfectionism or hyper-cleanliness, or trying to control the behavior or actions of those around you

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Is there anything wrong with being codependent?

Codependent people have a greater tendency than others to get involved in unhealthy or "toxic relationships." This is when a partner is unreliable, emotionally unavailable or unstable, or overly needy/clingly. If you are a codependent person, you may repeatedly enter relationships with these kinds of people. Once you are in a relationship with such a person, even if the relationship is clearly unhealthy for you, you don’t end it and the cycle repeats.

In fact, codependent people have a tendency make a relationship more important than their own health and well-being. That is, you may be the one in the relationship who does everything to make it work—you work hard to provide what your partner needs, or to control everything within the relationship—without addressing your own needs or desires. A one-sided relationship like this is toxic, and leaves the codependent partner ultimately unfulfilled and disappointed.

Even when a codependent person encounters someone with a healthy outlook and healthy boundaries, the codependent person may still demonstrate codependent behaviors within the relationship—because that is the only pattern of behavior in a relationship that he or she knows. Until the codependent person recognizes his or her own patterns of codependency in relationships, he or she will not be likely to get involved with people who have healthy boundaries.

Codependency can, therefore, create problems that continue long after you have the left the environment that caused you to develop codependency in the first place. If codependent people can't learn to recognize their own codependent behaviors, and get help in stopping or reprogramming those behaviors, they will repeat old patterns in each new relationship.

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How do I know if I'm codependent?

There are a few signs or patterns you can look for in your own behavior and past relationships to help determine if you are codependent. Generally, if you feel like you crave other people's approval and validation, if you feel that you’re not truly living your life and going after what you want, or you're feeling unfulfilled in relationship after relationship, and your childhood included some of the emotional stressors or family dynamics we described above, you may be codependent.

Isn't everyone codependent to some degree?

You may observe some natural and healthy behaviors in others that are not actually codependent behaviors, though they may appear to be. For example, mothers are caretakers of their children and may demonstrate some controlling or caretaking behaviors that are not necessarily dysfunctional or codependent. Many experts believe there is a continuum of codependency, and many people fall somewhere on this continuum.

It is possible that many people were not taught to be assertive or to talk about their feelings and ask directly for what they need, so it may appear they have behaviors we associate with codependency. However, it is probably overstating things to say that unassertive people are codependent, or that all mothers and their children are codependent. Further, many people are unfulfilled in their relationships because of other factors beyond codependency.

There are some psychology experts who believe that American society itself can cause patterns and behaviors of addiction and codependency, and that codependency doesn't necessarily develop solely through a dysfunctional family dynamic.

Regardless of where, when and how it happened, if you are concerned that you are codependent, the next step for you is to recognize which of your behaviors might be codependent. In order to recognize and change those behaviors, you may choose to enter counseling. Counseling can help you identify when you respond to situations in a codependent way and get guidance in how to begin taking steps to change those patterns.

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How do we become codependent?

It is generally believed that we become codependent through living in environments or families with dysfunctional dynamics that hinder our healthy development. The dysfunctional dynamics have often developed in response to some problem such as alcoholism, mental illness or chronic physical illness. Sometimes codependency can develop in families where there are stringent rules. Problematic dynamics or rules set up within families that can cause codependency may include rigid: an environment where problems are not openly discussed, perfection is expected, communication between family members is indirect and often conveyed through a third person, there is pressure to make one's parents, being playful is discouraged, selflessness is expected, and one shouldn't cause waves or upset the status quo.

This type of restrictive familial environment families can negatively affect a child's self-esteem and coping skills. As a result, children can develop ineffective problem-solving strategies, or unhealthy behavior characteristics and “non-helpful” reactions to situations in adult life which can lead to codependent behavior.

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You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don't try.--Beverly Sills

Oftentimes, a part of being codependent is a resistance to being able to HAVE FUN AND PLAY! So part of recovery from codependency is learning how to let go and have fun. Therefore it's bound to be liberating, and fun as we learn how to let go and play.

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Can counseling help treat codependency?

If you have codependent tendencies, individual or group counseling can help teach you to be assertive, and to become a better listener and communicator. Counseling can help you recognize your codependent behaviors and help you work on developing new, healthier behaviors and coping skills.

Codependency counselors need to present good boundary setting and healthy habits during sessions with clients. If a counselor develops a working relationship with a client that has characteristics of codependency, then a codependent pattern is repeated and therapy may not be as helpful. Some statistics show that 50-80 percent of counselors have not addressed their own codependency issues. So, be careful in choosing a counselor for your codependency issues.

If you’d prefer not to seek individual counseling, there are also self-help groups for codependency, called CODA groups. More information about these kinds of support groups is available through local alcoholism services. If you can't find a local CODA group, there are also ACA (adult children of alcoholics) groups that help members deal with issues of codependency.

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